The Empire Strikes Back

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is:  “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.  There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”

It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear:  1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.

While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government?  The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. 

Corporatizing Chicago's Subway Stations

Novelist David Foster Wallace once fantasized that naming rights to years would eventually be auctioned off, leading to a future year being widely known as Y.A.D.U., for The Year of Adult Depends Undergarment. Chicago just took a step in that direction by letting Apple Computers spend $4 million to renovate a subway stop, the North/Clybourn station on the city’s near north side, in return for exclusive advertising rights throughout the station. It is clearly a case of testing the waters for selling naming rights and exclusive marketing to other subway stations in the Chicago Transit Authority system. In this case, Apple has a store nearby, and the company evidently thought that it could “do well by doing good” by spending so much money for such a high-visibility advertising shrine (er, make that a “productive public/private partnership”).

Mark Twain's Final Copyright Crusade

Mark Twain’s autobiography is the surprise hit of the publishing world this fall:  “totally the Dad book of the year” exults one bookseller.  The University of California Press, which planned a print run of 7,500, has now printed 275,000 copies, each of which sells for $35 a pop. 

But inquiring minds want to know:  If Twain finished writing his autobiography more than 100 years ago, why is the work still copyrighted?  Didn’t it enter the public domain years ago?  The National Law Journal provides some illuminating answers in a recent article.  Reporter Shari Qualters writes that the last major revision of U.S. copyright law, in 1976, stipulated that copyrights for works created but not published before January 1, 1978, expired on

The debate over the commons used to focus on how to protect shared resources from private predators.  Now, increasingly, the focus is shifting to how the commons and market forces can constructively work together while preserving the integrity of the commons.  That is to say, the focus is on how to preserve the social relationships and free flows of information that constitute the commons while permitting some sort of monetization and/or developing external revenue sources. 

I consider this whole conversation is a significant “developmental stage” in the evolution of the commons:  how to develop a sustainable balance between commons and markets?  This sort of talk was much in evidence at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona in late October; at the International Commons Conference in Berlin on November 1-2; and most notably at the “Economies of the Commons” conference hosted by the De Balie Center in Amsterdam on November 11-13.  The tagline for the latter conference put it well:  “Paying the cost of making things free.”

New Video Introducing the Commons

A new video introducing the idea of the commons had a rushed premiere at the end of the International Commons Conference, but has now been released on the Web in four languages.  Here's an invitation to pass it along and make it go viral.

"The Commons" was produced by Christoph Knopp from Das Programm in Germany and the talented Berlin artist Burkhard Piller.  There are also versions in Spanish, German and Italian, with a French one on the way.  The animated line-drawings are wonderfully understated yet expressive.  In five short minutes, the neophyte can get an amusing introduction to the commons and the many areas in which it applies -- nature, culture, community and beyond. 

When the Commoners Converged on Berlin

The conversations that I encountered at the International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, three weeks ago are still reverberating through my mind.  I’m not sure if any of us really knew what a group of 180 self-styled commoners from 34 countries would look like.  But just experiencing the transnational tableau of commoners – each with different voices and passions, but united by a commitment to the idea of the commons – was energizing and inspiring. 

The conference was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Commons Strategy Group (of which I am a part) after months of planning, primarily by Silke Helfrich.  The event had an ambitious focus – “Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform” – that, in retrospect, was not entirely achieved.  There were just too many commoners meeting each other for the first time, each coming from different intellectual and cultural traditions, with no lingua franca or shared agenda yet.  We are still learning who were are, how we think and our aspirations for the commons.  (It was quite obvious, however, how we feel.)

The conference's most significant achievement may have been the in-person convergence of so many committed commoners -- and the many new relationships and collaborations that have been spawned.  And even if the framing of the conference was ambitious, it was precisely what we need to be talking about. 

A New Start

After more than ten years of thinking and writing about the commons, I decided that it was time to strike off in some new directions, with some new partners, projects and ways of engaging the world.  I plan for my new blog,, to be the place where I can share my adventures and insights from my work on the commons.  A lot is going on that needs to be brought into focus, interpreted, shared and debated.  I hope that this site can serve that function.

Never before has there been so much diverse leadership and innovation in developing the commons paradigm.  The recent International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, on November 1-2 was a landmark convergence of many different approaches to the commons, from efforts to fortify traditional natural resource commons and pioneer "peer to peer urbanism" to new digital commons that aspire to develop a privacy-friendly alternative to Facebook, reinvent money and relocalize the economy.

The familiar storyline of science fiction is the evil dystopia – the totalitarian society of the future in which large, faceless government agencies and corporations use sophisticated technologies to pry into every corner of our lives. The goal is to neutralize dissent and shield the exercise of power from accountability. However necessary at times, surveillance is a crude display of power, a unilateral override of the “consent of the governed."

Now a countervailing storyline is starting to get some traction in real life: the increasing citizen use of technology to “watch from below.” The practice has been called “sousveillance,” a word that comes the French word “sous” (from below) with the word “viller” (to watch). Instead of Big Brother using a panopticon of surveillance to exercise total, unquestioned control, the commoners are using cheap, portable technologies to monitor and publicize the behavior of Power. The commons is sprouting its own eyes – and its own means of self-defense, political organizing and reclamation of democracy.